Over 100 Chinese Miners Survive Week in Flooded Pit

Officials said 153 miners were trapped in the unfinished Wangjialing mine in Xiangning, Shanxi province, after water gushed into the shafts last Sunday. The survivors were pulled out late Sunday night and throughout Monday. Thirty-eight miners were still missing. The miners were part of a larger group of 261 working in the mine when it flooded March 28. Rescuers were able to reach 108 miners immediately after the flooding.

The accident occurred when workers digging tunnels broke through a wall into an old shaft filled with water, suddenly flooding the new V-shaped shaft with millions of gallons and submerging five of the miners’ nine work platforms.

The mine’s managers had ignored evidence of dangerous water leaks in the half-built mine days before the disaster, according to a preliminary investigation by the State Administration of Work Safety. Workers had been ordered to step up the pace of construction in order to meet an October deadline to begin production, the agency found.

Had rescue efforts failed, the accident would have been the deadliest since 172 miners perished when a mine flooded in eastern Shandong Province in 2007.

Friday afternoon brought a sudden glimmer of hope. Rescuers heard tapping on a metal pipe underground. They tapped and shouted into a pipe in response, and sent down hundreds of bags of glucose, a phone, a pen, paper, and two letters of encouragement inside a plastic bottle.

“Dear fellow workers, the Party Central Committee, the State Council and the whole nation have been concerned for your safety,” one letter began. It ended: “Hold onto the last.” (New York Times)

When they pulled one pipe up to the surface, rescuers found an iron wire tied to the end, an apparent signal from survivors, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency. Rescuers also spotted swaying lights at the opposite end of the shaft, another possible sign of life.

On Saturday afternoon, a team of divers was sent down, returning within a few hours, reporting that the black murky water made it hard to reach the workers’ platforms. Rescuers also said they battled build-ups of toxic gas in the shaft. But later that day, as water levels continued to drop, rescuers in rubber rafts managed to squeeze through narrow passages and descend into the mine’s shaft.

By late Sunday night, 100 rescue workers had located survivors, most of them stranded on a single platform. According to the Chinese media, one miner spotted a raft and called out: “Can you get me out of here?” (New York Times)

Nine miners were carried out of the mine early Monday morning. Thousands of people keeping vigil along the roadside cheered as ambulances carrying survivors raced by to the nearest hospital. Many of the first nine miners rescued suffered cold and ulcers, and some suffered heart muscle damage, the China News Service reported.

Two hundred people, as part of 50 rescue groups, were working around-the-clock to drain water, monitor gas and pull out miners, said Wang Jun.

The number of men saved grew throughout the day. China Central Television broadcast videos of rescuers carrying out stretcher after stretcher away from the mine, each laden with a bare-footed miner wrapped in green blankets on stretchers, eyes covered with towels as a shield from the light.

Thousands of anxious family members and onlookers stood along the road, bursting into cheers and applause when ambulances carrying the men passed by. Residents converged on a hospital treating survivors, offering gifts of milk and other food.

As of Monday night, there was no word on the status of roughly three dozen miners left inside the mine. Rescued miners reported that they had seen bodies of dead co-workers, but how many may have remained unclear.

“It’s a miracle,” said Luo Lin, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, waiting at the entrance of the pit. “The trapped miners stayed so unwaveringly determined down the mine shaft, passing through eight days and eight nights to live.” (Reuters)

One of the surviving miners insisted on borrowing a cell phone from a doctor to call his family in central China’s rural Henan province. “I’m good. How are you and the kid?” he asked his wife, according to a report on the website of the People’s Daily newspaper.

Over the weekend, China was on public holiday for the traditional “tomb sweeping” festival, when people mourn daed kin. The spectacle of the rescue has captured nationwide interest and prompted comment from top leaders.

“Strive will all your might and make each second count, doing everything possible to rescue the workers who are trapped,” President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao said in a message issued by the Xinhua news agency.

Provincial governor Wang Jun said that “two miracles” had occurred. “The first is that these trapped people have made it through eight days and eight nights – this is the miracle of life. Secondly, our rescue plan has been effective – this is a miracle in China’s search and rescue history,” he told China Central Television. (BBC)

Liu Qiang, chief medical officer at the Linfen hospital in Shanxi province, said the miners were suffering from low body temperature, severe skin infection from staying in water for such a long period of time and severe dehydration. He said some were still in shock from their experiences.

The rescued survivors were weak but lucid and able to speak despite the ordeal, identifying themselves to doctors, the semi-official China News Service reported. Most of the rescued miners were in stable condition, but state television said seven were in serious condition.

One of the survivors, Li Guoyu, 38, from Henan province in central China, told Xinhua news agency the miners had gone without water because they were worried about drinking the dirty liquid flowing in the tunnel.

The BBC’s Damian Grammaticas in Beijing says television reports spoke of the survivors attaching themselves by belts to the wall of the mine as the waters rushed in. They hung there for three days until a mine cart drifted by and they got in.

“I have not slept for several days,” one rescuer, Wei Fusheng, told the television station, weeping with happiness. “Our efforts have not been in vain.” (New York Times)

The government had mobilized thousands of rescue workers to pump out water and search for the miners, but hopes of anyone emerging alive appeared to dim until rescuers heard knocking on a mine pipe on Friday. After frantic pumping, the water level dropped low enough for rescue workers to enter the shaft.

“This is probably one of the most amazing rescues in the history of mining anywhere,” said David Feickert, a coal mine safety adviser for the Chinese government. (CBC)

But not all of China’s miners are lucky. In Henan province in the country’s center, the number of dead from a coal mine blast last week rose to 28, with another 16 still trapped underground, possibly dead, Xinhua reported. Officials said the Henan mine was operating illegally, after it defied an order to shut down after a gas outburst last year.

Strong demand for energy and lax safety standards have made China’s mines often deadly places to work, despite a government drive to clamp down on small, unsafe operations where most accidents occur.

The number of people killed in Chinese coal mines dropped to 2,631 in 2009, an average of seven a day, from 3,215 in 2008, according to official statistics.

China has ordered the consolidation or takeover of many private mines. It says the shutdown of many of the most dangerous private operations has helped cut accidents. But the deadliest accidents are not limited to private firms. The Wangjialing mine was a project belonging to a joint venture between China National Coal Group and Shanxi Coking Coal Group, two of China’s larger state-owned firms.

It was rare good news in China’s perilous coal-mining industry, the deadliest in the world with thousands killed every year in floods, explosions, collapses and other accidents. Shanxi province is the heartland of that industry.

Workers are tempted into the mines by wages that can be much higher than for many other jobs open to blue-collar workers and rural migrants.

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